It’s been an exhausting few weeks just trying to keep up with the Giro d’Italia, let alone try to ride the thing. Having had time now to reflect on all the comings and goings in this year’s Italian grand tour, we offer, below, a few of the more memorable moments of the tour, plus a couple of views of our own.
Etixx Demonstrate Teamwork
The team spirit on Etixx-Quickstep is truly something to behold. During stage 10 we were treated to the sight of Gianluca Brambilla, wearing the leader’s jersey in his home race, taking a huge turn on the front for teammate Bob Jungels — knowing full well that Jungels was amongst the few men who could, on that day, take the race lead from him. Some online commentators have suggested this is to ‘disrespect’ the maglia rosa, but we think that’s nonsense — these are actions completely in line with the spirit of cycling, and the collective and not individual effort that gets a rider onto the podium. Jungels finished in a superb sixth place overall, and took the white jersey for best young rider. If he’s still on Etixx next year, you can bet they will be handpicking a team for him that can ride as well in the mountains as they can on the flats and time trials. Brambilla is sure to feature. Adding in Kittel’s sprint wins and Matteo Trentin’s win on stage 18, Etixx took four wins as well as enjoying six days in the pink jersey. Here’s to team work.
Sky’s the Limit?
Another year, another Sky grand tour campaign without a backup plan. Mikel Landa was set to take the Giro by storm, after a great run as super domestique to Fabio Aru in last year’s Vuelta. However, after he pulled out of the race on stage 10, citing ongoing sickness, Sky were left up the creek of proverb without a paddle. It was only thanks to the hugely impressive solo performances of Mikel Nieve that Sky got anything out of the Giro at all; Nieve took a stage win, and, late in the day, claimed the mountains classification overall. (N.b., on the day he took the climbers’ jersey thanks to a mid-stage attack he noticeably lost the pace surely after the climb — but it’s worth mentioning that he still finished fourth on that stage, after a monstrous solo attack for over 20km.) What can be said about Sky’s plans though? In fairness, they were missing Sergio Henao due to ‘altitude data’ complications, and Froome is away training for the Tour, but the fact remains that the Giro team were left to ride without a clear plan, formlessly drifting in and out of the spotlight as the racing unfolded. Perhaps too many oeufs are going into the one Tour de France basket since Froome’s second win there. But, if Froome now doesn’t perform, it will look like a very disappointing season, and we can’t help but feel that Sky might sometimes be holding other riders back. You need only look at the current performances of Kanstantin Siutsou, Joe Dombrowski, or Edvald Boasson-Hagen — all of whom rode as domestiques for Sky during Grand Tours — to see that they have had plenty of talent kept under strict limits. It might be time to relax the Tour de France plan and go for wins elsewhere; we would love to see them utilise their stellar roster of riders to more firmly target the other major races in cycling.
Kruijswijk and Zakarin Crash, Stage 19
There were many unpleasant crashes in this year’s Giro, as there always are — it’s an inevitability in bike racing, after all. However, two of the most memorable happened on Stage 19. First, Steven Kruijswijk, who had been wearing the pink jersey since stage 14, came unstuck on the Colle dell’Agnello. Kruijswijk had been having the tour of his life, thanks to an extraordinary performance in the time trial and superlative showings in the mountains (no wins, but he twice came second in the peaks). He started stage 19 with 3 minutes in hand on the next best rider, Esteban Chaves. However, he was forced to chase hard after Astana made a move up the Agnello, taking Chaves with them as they went. Kruijswijk, in a momentary lapse of concentration at the very start of the long descent, headed straight into a compacted bank of snow. He flipped over his bars and landed on the road, suffering what was later discovered to be a broken rib. His face was a picture of determination as he instantly remounted his battered bike, but his G.C. hopes ended in that moment, and his hard chase was in vain. And, only a few minutes later, the fifth best rider in the G.C. also took a terrible spill. Ilnur Zakarin, who has been continuing his trend of great form this year, shot off the road when the cameras were elsewhere and lay unmoving on a slope below the roads, amongst rocks and a mountain stream, in what was perhaps the most chilling image of the Giro. It was one of those awful and uncertain moments when you simply will the camera to look away on your behalf. Thankfully, and quite incredibly given the speed and the distance Zakarin fell, he escaped with a collarbone break and a few other, more minor, injuries. All the best to him, and we hope to see him in the Tour or the Vuelta.
The Final Week
The general classification competition in the final week was one of the most exciting in recent memory. Overall, we saw eight different wearers of the maglia rosa, and in the final week alone the jersey changed hands twice. The race organisers deserve to take a bow for designing a course that was widely varying and entertaining, whilst not being too extreme for the riders themselves (and there were no desperate efforts to make the race interesting, like the sand-and-boardwalk time trial at the Vuelta last year). The dullest point, we concede, was the racing in Holland, which felt rather predictable compared to the rest of the race — although the Dutch fans did their best to roar the race into life, especially with local hero Tom Dumoulin winning the opening time trial. RCS seems to be taking a leaf out of ASO’s book with course design, making the race intriguing and unexpected from week one, rather than adhering to the more traditional “flat first week, lumpy second week, high mountains final week” formula. Plus let’s not forget that some of the most thrilling stages were also the shortest. Stages 20 (134km), 19 (162km), 16 (132km), and 8 (186km) all stand as testament to the fact that less can definitely be more in cycle races, and these short, sharp routes provided the difficult-to-control, difficult-to-predict racing that we love. Chapeau.
The Shark Returns
Vincenzo Nibali, ‘The Shark of Messina’, made the biggest comeback since Lazarus during the final week of his Giro (Nibali’s, not Lazarus’s). He lost big time on stage 6 after an ill-judged and ill-fated attack that backfired, leaving him without the energy and strength to finish the job. He then had a disaster on the uphill time trial on stage 16, suffering a mechanical and looking like he wanted to trash his bike. Throughout the second week and into the third, Nibali looked exhausted by the race, and out of realistic G.C. contention. However, it seemed a different rider who rode the final two mountain stages. He attacked mid-stage on stage 19 and ended up finishing in first, whilst also clawing back over four minutes on Esteban Chaves, the current race leader. The next day he did it again, thanks to a well placed team mate in Tanel Kangert (who apparently waited behind the break he’d been in for around 8 minutes before Nibali took his wheel). On stage 20 Chaves finally cracked, and Nibali soared with grace up the final climb in a trademark solo effort. He was sixth on the stage, but he had over a minute and a half on poor Esteban. In two stages he’d gone from 4th at 4:43, to first with a buffer of 52 seconds. He’d won the Giro.
The Clock Stops on Stage 21
Stage 21. Nibali had all but sealed the deal on the G.C., there were no more climbing points to come, and, though technically Ulissi could have gained ground on his compatriot Nizzolo in the sprint contest, Nizzolo took the early sprint and sewed up that contest, too. As far as the G.C. riders were concerned, it was going to be a cakewalk into Turin, a few photo opportunities (including this great, widely circulated snap in which an Etixx rider appears to be photobombing Nibali), followed by a sprint and a glass or two of prosecco. However, things were not to be so simple. It began to bucket down with rain as the riders arrived in Turin for the final laps, and the tight roads, slick white lines, and uneven surfaces wreaked havoc on the race. Nibali even started to look nervous, and Astana were lined up at the front of the peloton (the safest place to be, once the pace picks up in the wet). Suddenly, on one of the last laps, big Rigoberto Uran came down hard on a paved (but not cobbled) section of street. Cannondale riders flanked him; Uran was seventh on G.C., but risked losing that place to Andrey Amador if he couldn’t chase on. Orica riders also stopped to see if he was okay — including Esteban Chaves, who looked to be practically surrendering second place to Alejandro Valverde. Whether it was because of this sight, or because the organizers feared further crashes were to come, the decision was made: the clock was stopped on the general classification contest. Chaves there and then held on to second, Uran held on the seventh, and Nibali, whose Astana team mates instantly turned down the pace, was confirmed the winner. Only a small pack went off to fight for the stage, with most losing interest on the treacherous streets. Amongst them was Sonny Colbrelli, who attacked on the last rise of the entire Giro but clipped a spectator, coming down horribly in front of the speeding bunch. This year’s Giro, right into the last 6km, kept throwing up brutal surprises.
A dearth of sprinters and sprint-train talent was apparent after Marcel Kittel and André Greipel left the Giro, after stages 8 and 12 respectively. After stage 13 Arnaud Démare also dropped out, and fantasy cycling teams the world over started to suffer. The final sprint of the Giro was a mess because of the annulment of stage times coupled with the weather, but it was also clear that it takes more than Trek and Lampre’s sprint trains to control and order the bunch. And look at stage 17; first Pippo Pozzato outfoxed the bunch, then Roger Kluge attacked before the line and stole the win. That sort of winning move is usually unthinkable, and its success is a indicator of the lack of pure sprinters (and their motivated teams) left in the race. Our question, then: is this on? Is it okay for sprinters to sign on for a race they have no intention of seeing to the finish? It’s true that the final week of racing offered very little for the fast men, and the Turin finale lacks the prestige of a Madrid or Paris sprint showdown, but it’s a little disappointing to lose the superstar sprinters after a week or two in a grand tour. It makes us wonder if a rule that outlaws dropping out of the race at leisure (instead of due to injury, illness, exhaustion, etc) wouldn’t be such a bad thing. It would be impossible to police, of course, but then again, you’d hope that riders would just not sign up for a race they don’t intend to complete.
Nizzolo Sees Red
Spare a thought for Giacomo Nizzolo. The Italian sprinter has had a mixed season this year, with little to show other than a couple of stage wins (ahead of Mark Cavendish, no less) in the Tour of Croatia. He went hard in every sprint of the Giro but never found that elusive win. By the time of his best placing, second on stage seven, he was still lagging behind Greipel, Kittel, Démare, and Tjallingii in the red jersey points contest. However, as sprinters dropped out of the race as the road went uphill, Nizzolo slowly climbed the ranks to the head of the leaderboard. Patiently working his way across the Dolomites and the Alps, he was amongst the few specialist sprinters who remained in the race, and, come the last day, he held a 33 point buffer over the next best placed rider. Arriving into Turin, Nizzolo was ready to collect his red jersey, but first wanted more than anything to take a stage win out of this Giro. After the clock was stopped on the G.C. race, a roughly twenty-man group was left to reel in the two escapees and fight for the win. Sprinting hard out of a disorganised bunch, Nizzolo crept towards the barriers and came in first ahead of Sacha Modolo. However, he had time to only briefly celebrate before judges made the decision to relegate him for irregular sprinting, as he apparently moved to block Modolo before the line. Nikias Arndt took the win instead. It was a furious Nizzolo who took to the stage to accept his overall win in the points contest, and the only thing redder than his face was his jersey.